Lon Garrison, who serves as executive director of the influential Alaska Association of School Boards, recently posted a sharply worded column in which he blasts those who note that dismal standardized test scores are objective evidence that Alaska’s public schools are failing to educate children.
“Standardized tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), have lately been the tool of choice for public school critics bent on demonstrating how poorly public education performs,” Garrison complained in a March 31 column. “It is often used as the single best indicator of student outcomes because it is a ‘normalized test’ carried out across the country and theoretically permitted comparisons from state to state or school to school.”
Alaska’s test results are, however, objectively among the very worst in the nation. Rather than address this hard data, Garrison lamented the fact that the test results give public school critics ammunition to question what’s actually happening in schools. He said it allows those with “little public education experience to develop arguments of causation that may be wholly inaccurate and inappropriate.”
Garrison and his association are among the ranks of public education apologists who are attempting to convince the Legislature to approve historic increases in school funding this year, despite the fact that standardized test scores show that upwards of 70% of Alaska students are failing to master basic math and reading skills.
Garrison added that teaching students is a “huge and, at times, overwhelming task.”
In Garrison’s estimation, these tests are just sterilized statistics, which don’t take into account the subjective and personal experiences that he and other state educators believe are far more important in factoring educational success.
“Many of us in public education, whether you are a school board member or educational professional, know that student success cannot be measured by a single test given once a year,” he asserts. “As a locally elected school board member in Sitka and a father of two daughters, I quickly realized that public education is a complex system.”
Garrison added that teaching students is a “huge and, at times, overwhelming task.” This is the same reasoning which has led many public school critics to push for competition such as school vouchers, more charter programs and greater homeschool freedoms.
Garrison, however, makes the argument that it would be far better to focus less on standardized tests. While he doesn’t offer any specific alternatives for how to measure a school’s success, he does claim that “using a myriad of indices to monitor the growth and development of the whole student” is much preferred.
Garrison contends that “school climate” and “connectedness” are far more important than test scores.
Rather than fixate on tests that gauge reading comprehension and math skills, Garrison says schools should focus on broad themes such as supporting the “entire community, its values, culture, and identity.”
He maintains that most people are more interested in subjective ideals like having “fulfilling, satisfying lives that contribute to the success of their families and communities,” and focusing on “cultural values, traditions, and identities.”
Garrison also contends that “school climate” and “connectedness” are far more important than test scores.
“Our premise is that schools that demonstrate a highly positive school climate also have students, staff, and well-connected communities,” he said.
Garrison also wants to turn attention things like “attendance, declining discipline issues, greater parental and community engagement, and how well-attended your extracurricular and arts activities are” when evaluating educational progress.
Notably, he also claims that taxpayer support for additional education bonds is bonified indicator of success.
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Garrison ended his column with a personal experience he had in recalling what he described as a “huge smile” he saw from a high school graduate last year who had received some scholarships to attend a medical school.
“It was then and there, I knew that student outcomes are so much more than standardized tests,” he said. “Don’t let others define Alaska’s educational success or portray your work and dedication as a failure because of one measure. Be true to your mission, hold yourselves accountable, and support the whole child and community. The tests will take care of themselves. Tell others your story of success and the challenges that jeopardize your efforts.”
In recent years, amid declining academic results, the Association of Alaska School Boards has placed a heavy emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion trainings, along with promoting social emotional learning, LGBTQ initiatives and the introduction of critical race theory in public schools.
Of the 54 Alaska school districts, 51 are members of the AASB. Notably, Alaska’s second largest school district – Mat-Su – is no longer a member.